Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Par Bete Ko Sikhao

One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world

malala yousafzai, nobel prize laureate, activist

As the world celebrates International Education Day today, we, as global citizens, need to take a moment to think about how we are going to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal #4 Quality Education and Goal #5 Gender Equality.

What is Quality Education? According to former UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-Moon, the institution of education is not a mass-production assembly line whose sole purpose is to deliver educated adults; it is to empower children so that they become productive citizens who are ready to lead the future. These children will grow up one day and forge societies that are more just, tolerant and peaceful. That is the meaning of quality education.

There are three essentials to quality education: ensuring access to quality teachers; providing use of quality learning tools and professional development; and the establishment of safe and supportive quality learning environments.

Why do we talk of educating girls and promoting gender parity? Because we want our girls to go to school and grow up to be a part of the national workforce. Primary and secondary education and beyond is critical to ensuring that women are employed. They are more likely to have professional and technical jobs, assume leadership roles, earn more and marry later. Child marriage, female infanticide and infant mortality rates can go down while family planning, maternal health and neonatal health rates can go up. Educated mothers can provide better healthcare and education to the next generation. This can exert natural checks on the population and lift communities out of poverty.

Gender parity brings economic prosperity. In India, closing the gender gap in the workforce could contribute $2.9 Trillion to our GDP which could be a 60% increase by the year 2025. Legal, social and cultural issues however, make this a challenge. So yes, education matters. It matters a lot. It’s a game-changer.

The National Commission for Women India, will have you know that we have a Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Campaign (Save the girl child, educate the girl child) run by the Ministry for Women and Child Development. The programme was launched by our Prime Minister in 2015, with an aim of ensuring the survival of the girl child and better access to education. Looking back at the last five years of this scheme, it’s clear that there are three fundamental issues: insufficient allocation of funds, inadequate oversight and supervision and an imbalance in expenditure patterns.

As it turns out, the programme has been launched solely for publicity reasons. Nearly 60% of the funds allocated to the BBBP scheme have been spent on media activities. Less than 25% have been disbursed to districts and states and 19% have not been released by the government at all. Although Rs. 644 Crore have been earmarked by the government for this fund, only Rs. 159 Crore have been made available to States.

According to the Human Development Index, the expected years of schooling for girls is 12.9 years while government expenditure on education itself is only 3.8% of the nation’s GDP and literacy rates stand at 69%. In the Gender Inequality Index, India has fallen to 0.829. In the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, India has slipped to the 112th rank.

Now let’s say we buy into the whole BBBP has been tremendously ‘successful’ idea. What exactly are we raising our girls for?

So that they can grow up in what the Thomson Reuters Foundation called the most dangerous country for women? Where a rape is reported every 15 minutes?

In 1973, a 26-year old nurse in Mumbai is attacked, sodomised and strangled by a ward attendant which leaves her in a vegetative state for the next 40 years. In 1990 a 14 year old schoolgirl is raped and murdered in Kolkata. In 1995, a social worker campaigning against child marriage is gang-raped in a small village in Rajasthan. In 1996, a law student is found raped and strangled at her home in New Delhi by a classmate and the son of a former police officer. In 2012, a medical intern is brutally raped and tortured on a moving bus and later succumbs to her injuries. In 2018, an 8-year old girl in Jammu & Kashmir is held captive in a temple and raped before being battered to death with a stone. In 2019, the charred remains of a young veterinarian are found under a flyover in Telangana after she was raped and murdered. Before the year is done, a survivor of gang-rape is burnt alive in Uttar Pradesh by her rapist while on her way to Court to attend a hearing.

Yes. Save the girl child. Raise the girl child. Educate the girl child. But for what?

Eradicating social evils such as gender-based sex-selection, denial of healthcare and plummeting attendance in schools is a noble goal. Educating women is a truly humanitarian cause. Let’s all come together and show the world that our girls have the right to be born, to be healthy, to be educated and to be employed.

But what about the men?

Shruti Kapoor, a good friend of mine, an economist and gender equality activist was invited by a Turkish news channel to appear as a guest on a panel debating the rape pandemic in India. She asked one of the other guests, a politician, what the ruling government was doing to ensure the safety of women in India.

The politician went on a rant about the various welfare schemes that our government had organised to provide financial support and employment for women.

But what are you doing to educate men, my friend asked. To change the mindset?

The politician, whether because she was being deliberately obtuse or because she was genuinely ignorant became defensive and continued to talk about how changing women’s status would fight the rape crisis. My friend resignedly shook her head but held her peace. Because the question still remained:

What about our boys?

After all, it is men that commit rape. Men that commit intimate partner violence. Men in power that deny, discriminate and abuse. Men that sexually harass. This is not to say that men cannot be victims of gender-based violence, but when you talk about educating women about being independent how can you ignore the fact that you need to educate men about women?

Yes. We must have daughters. We must raise them well. We must educate them. We must take care of them. We must encourage them. But how on earth do we keep them safe?

It starts with our boys.

The UN HDP report on the Human Development Index made an alarming observation: There is an increasing bias all over the world against gender equality. Only 14% of women and 10% of men worldwide are free of bias. This has been attributed to rise in prejudice and social beliefs that obstruct gender equality. In countries like India, where there is power involved, the report has observed an increase in backlash to women’s empowerment.

We can organise welfare schemes and enact stringent laws; we can create fast-track courts and conduct police sensitisation sessions; we can make reservations and give subsidies; but the greatest change we can bring about in societal mindset is when we teach our boys the meaning of consent.

So yeah, save our girls and educate our girls.

But don’t forget to teach our boys.

(NOTE: To know more about consent education for boys, check out Peggy Orenstein’s book, Boys and Sex)